Ivan Garcia, 28 April 2017 — Soot covers the unpainted facades of buildings on Tenth of October Boulevard. Old American cars from the 1950s, rebuilt with modern diesel engines and now privately operated as taxis, transit across asphalt, leaving behind a trail of black smoke and the unpleasant odor of gasoline.
The noonday sun glimmers in the opaque windows of old clothing stores, which have been converted into low-quality jewelry and handicraft shops.
Tenth of October is one of Havana’s main arteries. Formerly known as Jesus of the Mountain, the boulevard immortalized by the poet Eliseo Diego is now a walkway of pedestrians carrying plastic bags past makeshift booths set up in the covered entryways of people’s houses. Vendors sell old books, photos of Fidel and Kim Il Sung, and knickknacks that are not longer fashionable.
Seated at a stool outside his butcher shop, Rey Angel reads a headline in the newspaper Granma. He has not worked in days. “There have been no deliveries of chicken or ground soy,” he says. He kills time reading boring articles by the nation’s press and watching women walk by.
Right now, news from Venezuela is a high priority for the average Cuban. “It’s like seeing yourself in the mirror. You don’t like to read stories about shortages and misfortunes similar to your own, although ours don’t come with street protests or repression and killings by the police,” says the butcher.
“But we have to follow the news from Venezuela,” he adds. “If it all goes to hell there, things won’t look good for us. There will be another ’Special Period.” The government is trying not to alarm people but according to the official press, the country produces only 50% of the crude it needs. The question then is: Where the hell are we going to get the money for the other 50% Venezuela gives us.”
The longstanding economic, social and political crisis in Venezuela also impacts Cuba, a republic that has been unable to control its own destiny. Hungry for power, Fidel Castro hijacked the country, making political commitments in exchange for a blank check from the Kremlin and later oil and credit guarantees from Hugo Chavez.
Like a baby, Cuba is still crawling. It won’t stand up and walk on its own two feet. “Whom should we blame for these disastrous policies?” asks a university professor before answering his own question.
“If we are honest, the answer is Fidel Castro,” he says. “Cuba a total disaster, except supposedly in the realm of sovereignty and independence. But these days we are more dependent than ever. In order to survive, we must depend on tourism, on the export of doctors who work under slave-like conditions and on remittances sent home by Cubans from overseas.”
Although Cuba’s government-run press and Telesur — a media company founded with petrodollars from Hugo Chavez — is trying to cover up the causes of the situation in Venezuela, to ignore other points of view and to manipulate the narrative of the Venezuelan opposition, people on the island can now compare their reporting with other sources of information.
“Whether it’s through the internet, an illegal antenna or family members returning from medical missions in Venezuela, people know that not everything reported in the national media is true. It’s not just the middle class that supports the opposition, as the state press would have us believe. If that were the case, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie would number in the millions. Maduro’s days are numbered. When another political party occupies the presidential palace, when the oil agreement and the exchange of doctors are over, the Cuban economy will experience a crisis , a period of recession the likes of which it has not seen for twenty-eight years. And even worse, all the turmoil in Venezuela coincides with Raul Castro’s stepping down from power” notes an academic.
Among the late Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro’s longterm goals was the eventual unification of their two countries,” says a former diplomat. “ALBA* was just a first step. They hoped to later create a common currency: the sucre. In the halls of power it was jokingly referred to as ‘Cubazuela’. In their minds Castro and Chavez thought they would rule forever. They didn’t foresee themselves dying or anticipate the current catastrophe. In spite of all Maduro’s authoritarianism, there are still democratic institutions which could reverse the situation. But in Cuba? When Venezuela crashes, we’ll be up the creek without a paddle. We can perhaps count on rhetorical support from Bolivia and Ecuador but no one is going to write us a blank check or extend us credit. We will then will have to figure out where we are going and how to get there. If some future politicians manage to figure out a path forward, we’ll have to erect a monument to them.”
Hyperinflation, polarization and the socio-political crisis in Venezuela are all impacting the Cuban economy. In the summer of 2016 Raul Castro announced fuel cuts for the public sector, causing numerous government programs which do not generate hard currency to grind to a halt.
As people die and mass protest marches take place in Venezuela, officials and presidential advisers at the Palace of the Revolution in Havana are devising contingency plans to deal with the eventual collapse of the Chavez movement. It could take months, maybe a year or two, but it will happen.
*Translator’s note: Acronym for Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, an organization founded by Cuba and Venezuela and currently made up of eleven socialist and social democratic member states.